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Refugees Are Fleeing Trump's America for This Tiny Canadian Town

Emerson, Manitoba sits directly on the U.S-Canada border. It has a population of 678. In the past few months, hundreds of people have arrived there to seek asylum in Canada.
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EMERSON, Manitoba — The mayor, one of three patrons in this small town bar on a Monday night, lights his cigarette. He knows it’s illegal to smoke in here.

“I don’t give a s--t,” says the honorable Greg Janzen.

The town is Emerson, Manitoba. The bar is a literal two minute walk to the United States border.

For the past few months, it has become a hotbed for people illegally crossing the border into Canada.

And Janzen is angry.

Most had come to the U.S. from halfway around the world to seek asylum, but said they feared a crackdown under President Donald Trump. So they continued north, where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it clear that such asylum seekers are welcome.

“He’s ill-informed,” Janzen said of Trudeau. “And same with Mr. [Ahmed] Hussen, who’s the immigration minister. I don’t think they realize the impact of their decisions right now.”

Since January, more than 300 people have crossed into Emerson. The town’s population is 678.

The crossers are generally arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), taken to the official border crossing for processing, and then sent to Winnipeg, where most end up at the refugee resettlement agency Welcome Place.

They're largely from Somalia, according to Welcome Place Executive Director Rita Chahal, with many also coming from Djibouti, Nigeria, Eritrea, as well as from some Central American countries.

An agreement between the U.S. and Canada called the Safe Third Country Agreement prevents people in the U.S. from applying for asylum in Canada at any official border crossing.

But if asylum seekers cross illegally into Canada, they can make their claim. The mayor wants those rules changed.

Image: Migrants walk along railway tracks after crossing the Canada-U.S. border in Emerson
A group of migrants who said they were from Djibouti and Somalia walk along railway tracks after crossing the border at Emerson.Chris Wattie / Reuters

“You and me, we figured this out two months ago,” Janzen says to Bert Gilchrist, another bar regular who tonight is wearing a winter hat and a Toronto Maple Leafs jacket. “Like, close the loophole!”

A spokesperson for Canada’s Ministry of Public Safety wrote to NBC News to say, "The Safe Third Country Agreement is an important tool used by Canada and the U.S. to cooperate on the orderly handling of refugee claims. Our government is continuing to monitor the situation closely and will carefully evaluate any new developments.”

Janzen fears that, as the weather warms, the situation is only going to get worse. In February, the RCMP intercepted 142 people coming into the province; in March, they stopped another 170.

“I can’t believe after all this ... nothing has changed” Janzen sighs, nursing a Bud Light. “Other than more people are crossing.”

'Right now, it seems like we have an open border'

The road stretches for miles. Its dirt path seems to continue endlessly: across the railway tracks, dividing vast fields and two nations on either side.

“The road we’re on now is the border road,” says Jay Ihme, one of Emerson’s volunteer firefighters.

“The road itself is in Canada,” he continues. “That ditch to your immediate right is in the U.S.”

Image: A road sign pointing to Emerson near the Canada-U.S. border
A road sign points to Emerson.Chris Wattie / Reuters

Out of the ditch sticks a thin white post, slanted, with two tiny flags fastened atop: one with the red, white, and blue stars and stripes of the United States; the other with Canada’s red maple leaf. This is the border.

“I don’t want to defend a border,” Ihme says, walking close to the dividing line. “People should enter legally and do it properly ... But, you know, we’ve been having this undefended border since forever, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

A road sign stands near the post. It reads Boundary Avenue, but the words are hard to make out. Someone has stuck two stickers on the sign. The sign now reads: Stop Trudeau.

Image: Migrants follow railway tracks towards the Canada-U.S. border as seen from Emerson
A group of migrants who said they were from Djibouti and Somalia follow railway tracks towards the Canada-U.S. border.Chris Wattie / Reuters

Emerson has six officers to patrol the 320 miles near the border, according to Janzen. The United States, he says, has 90 for the same stretch of land.

Back at the bar, Janzen is ranting about “the numbers.”

“You don’t want to get me the numbers? I’ll get my own numbers,” he proclaims.

The RCMP — on instructions from the Trudeau government, Janzen says — are now prohibited from giving him updated information on the number of people illegally crossing into town. The RCMP releases information on asylum seekers across each affected area once a month, and publishes them to a centralized website.

“They’re trying to cover this story up,” says Janzen. He used to get updates every week.

So Janzen has said he'’s going to buy four motion sensor cameras on his own, to monitor the border himself.

“I’ll even f-----g put a drone up there,” he declares.

The government, meanwhile, insists that the data posted on the RCMP website “presents a comprehensive, consistent and regularly updated picture of the situation across the country — and includes more data than has ever been publicly released before.”

“The local RCMP want to give it and they can’t,” Janzen says. “If they do it, they lose their jobs. So, I’m going to take things into my own hands.”

“Right now,” he says, “it seems like we have an open border.”

An earlier version of this article attributed the number of Emerson's border officers to Corey Meyers, a sergeant in the RCMP integrity unit. Meyers and the RCMP would not release the total number of officers on duty in Emerson, but said that the RCMP had sent an additional five to six officers to patrol the border.